Site Visit to Connellsville: Reflection

  1. What key community assets did you identify on the site visit? What additional work does the team need to accomplish to identify additional county-wide assets?
  2. What surprised you about the community that you learned on the site visit?
  3. What links can you make between the course readings and what you experienced from the site visit?
  4. Based on this limited experience in the community, what are your initial ideas to spur economic development in Fayette County?
  5. What do you believe the next steps for the project based on the information gathered during the site visit?

On October 8th, the Appalachian Teaching Project group here at Pitt visited Connellsville, PA in Fayette County. The goal of our visit was to conduct interviews, speak with stakeholder, tour the city, see the Youghiogheny River and the Great Appalachian Passage Trail, and identify some of the strongest assets of the community. Our trip was very successful, and we drive back to Pittsburgh full of new information and lots of ideas about our next steps in the project.

Some of the key assets we identified during the visit included the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) Trail along the Youghiogheny River, the new Comfort Inn Hotel, the Connellsville Canteen, and the Youghiogheny Glass Factory. The Downtown area of the city is also a huge asset to the community and has many businesses and resturaunts which give it a small-town feel. Many of the residents we spoke with showed appreciation for that small-town feel of Connellsville and would like to preserve that aspect of the community/city.

The GAP Trail is an 150-mile trail that runs from Pittsburgh to D.C. and runs along the Youghiogheny River in the Connellsville area. The GAP Trail attracts hundreds of cyclists and travelers using the trail to Connellsville and the surrounding areas. When we visited, the operator of the Visitor’s Center along the trail in Connellsville said that someone biking along the trail from Mexico checked in earlier that day. The trail is a huge asset because of its beauty and tourist-attractiong quality.

The Comfort Inn Hotel is a somewhat new addition to the Connellsville infrasturtcure. It is a very nice building with under 50 rooms, a lot of amenities for bikers who stay the night after a long day of biking akong the GAP, and is conveniently located only yards from the trail. We spoke with the manager and she expressed how much of an asset the trail is and how busy the hotel can be during warmer seasons when cyclists are using the trail often. In the HON 1010 first zoom meeting with Michael Edwards and Daniel Cocks, they spoke highly of this hotel as a great new asset and large source of revenue in Connellsville. When we spoke with the manager, she expressed some frustration about the popularity of the hotel, saying the hotel struggles to find guests during the winter season because less bikers are using the GAP trail and that is where the majority of guests come from, especially in the spring and summer.

The Connellsville Canteen is a cafe and a World War II museum located in Downtown Connellsville. The Canteen attracts community members for breakfast and lunch and contains hundreds of priceless artifacts from the World War II era, as well as an enormous model railroad, the Harry Clark Indian Creek Valley Railroad. As a community center, this asset enhances the community relations within Connellsville and is an outstanding example of a strong asset of Fayette County. At the Canteen, we heard short presentations from the Mayor, Greg Lincoln, our stakeholders Michael Edwards and Daniel Cocks. Daniel presented a very intewresting slideshow of redevlopment projects occuring in Connellsville, including demolition and rebuildijg of business and home properties, rezoning, and beautification of the city’s infrastructure. We also learned about the history of Connellsville here, and it was hard not to see the pride that the people we spoke with have in their community. Each and every individual I spoke with in Connellsville showed immense pride for their city and great interest in the economic development of Connellsville. The Canteen provided us a home base in Connellsville, where we were served food and water and were provided with other amenities as well. This place is definitely a great asset to the community.

One more great community asset we were lucky enough to tour during our time in Connellsville was the Youghiogheny Glass Factory, a small manufacturing company that specializes in the production ans distribution of stained glass sheets for artwork. Youghiogheny Glass is world-renowned as one of only a few manufacturers of this type of glass in the world, making it a huge economic and cultural asset to Fayette County and Connellsville. We had the privilege to tour and speak with the owner of the glass factory about their development and his thoughts on Connellsville and the economic develoment of the area. We found that each individual we spoke with had very similar responses to the questions we asked about Connellsville’s community and economic development. Mostly, we heard people say they loved the small-town feel of the area including the amount of small businesses and shops and community-based resturaunts. But, we also heard that people would prefer more industrial jobs in the area for better paying and more reliable employment. Connellsville used to be the Coke and Coal capital of the world, with thousands of industrial employment opportunities attracting loads of wealth and prosperity to the residents of Connellsville. It seems like the residents somewhat idolize this era, hoping for another boost in the economy from industry in the future.

Furthemore, I found myself surprised by the natural beauty of the area. I was not expecting such a breathtaking view of the Yough River from the back balcony of the hotel. The city as a whole was unique and allowed me to further understand the assets and strengths of the community. I was also surprised by the warmth and welcoming nature of each place we entered. As a small community with only about 7,000 people, I expected the people of Connellsville to be somewhat closed off and unwelcoming to new ideas and people, like some other small towns are. But, to my surprise, our entire group was warmly welcomed and each person we spoke to was greatly interested in learning about and getting involved in our project. Next time we go to Connellsville, we are presenting our findings and asset map in the Canteen to all who wish to attend, including our stakeholders (Michael Edwards and Daniel Cocks), the mayor and police chief, and whoever else we invited and is able to come! By that time, we hope to have an asset map, extensive and organized research, and list of some ideas on how to encourage economic development in the area.

In our class reading, “Explaining the ‘Brain Drain’ From Older Industrial Cities: The Pittsburgh Region”, by Hansen et al., there is discussion, analysis, and data on out-migration from Western Pennsylvania, and I found many examples of the issues discussed in this paper during our visit to Connellsville. Firstly, it was evident when walking through the city that the level of high-education jobs was very low, with most employers being trade jobs, resturaunts and small-town shops, and the school district. Some of these jobs require college educations, but many of them do not, and it is clear that someone with an advanced degree would maybe need to move elsewhere (Pittsburgh or another large city) in order to find employment which matches their level of certification.

My inital ideas about economic development in Connellsville and the greater Fayette County area include pushing forth community events and festivals in order to attract community members to become closer with the comminity and to attract outside visitors to the warm and welcoming city of Connellsville. Also, our group found a lack of nightlife in the Downtown Connellsville area, and I believe that the implementation of some bars targeted at college-aged and millenial-aged individuals would be a great way to strenghten the younger communities within the city and therefore push this generation to stay and develop their families and careers in Connellsville. This is obviously not a fix-all solution, but it has the potential to make a big difference and attract younger generations to the city. Furthemore, past festivals and community events in the city have attracted many visitors and community members to celebrate and join in on the fun. This positive outcome could be attruibuted to the lack of socialization possible during the peak COVID era, and implementing more festivals and celebrations throughout the city could bring in extra revenue, more visitors and tourism, and regional popularity to the city of Connellsville.

In conclusion, our class had an extremely successful visit to Connellsville. We had the opportunity to see many of the great assets of Connellsville that we have been researching now for two months and learned much more about Connellsville than we expected. Meeting Michael and Daniel in person as spending the entire day with Daniel as our tour guide, was very helpful in our process of undertsanding and becoming familiar with the city. When we return, I hope to learn more about the city and engage with more residents of Connellsville.

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